“Processes of Learning” – Business Leaders Share How Studying Abroad Shaped Their Lives


In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué, NYU Shanghai and East China Normal University (ECNU) brought together prominent business leaders from both China and the United States to discuss the impact of higher education exchanges on their own lives and on the U.S.-China relations. 

The online event, “Processes of Learning: A Half Century of U.S.-China Collaboration in Higher Education,” was the second in a series of conversations marking 50 years since the normalization of U.S.-China relations and the joint efforts by U.S. and Chinese universities, scholars, and students to promote greater understanding between the two countries. 

Each of the four panelists - President of Novartis Group (China) Dan Brindle, CEO of Jiahui Health System Ge Feng, CEO of Trip.com Group Jane Sun, and Senior Vice President of Greenpoint Group Travis Tanner - had spent some time studying in China or the U.S. as foreign students. They shared stories of their time abroad and reflected on how those experiences shaped their careers. 

Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman, who moderated the panel, kicked off the conversation by asking the panelists to reflect on what surprised them the most about the other country when they arrived there to study.

 “What surprised me the most was how contrary everything was to what I thought it would be,” said Brindle, who first came to China in 1987 during a junior year abroad visiting nine Asian countries and returned in 1992 to study in The Hopkins-Nanjing Center. 

“This was kind of an inner wake up call for me that China was so different from what I thought it would be and actually led to a lifelong passion and love for this country.” 

Sun, who grew up in a middle-class Shanghai family with a monthly salary of just 200 RMB, said she had to work two jobs to support herself when she attended the University of Florida in 1989. She added that she was lucky to meet a professor there who treated her like his own child. Her dream back then was to establish a scholarship one day and name it after the professor – which she achieved in 2016. “I was very impressed by the big hearts my host family, my professor’s family have shown me. It changed my life.”

Ge Feng echoed Sun’s thoughts. He traveled to the U.S. on a scholarship in 1998, which was also his first international trip. He said Americans were very friendly and studying in the U.S. had been an “eye-opening experience.” He lived there for 12 years, which made him appreciate both his Chinese heritage and American culture even more.

“What surprised me the most was that China would become a fascination and then dictate the following going on 24 years of my life,” said Travis Tanner, whose one-year studying abroad in the late 90s turned into over two decades. When most would use the word “homogenous” to describe China, Tanner said he saw a country so diverse in languages, in cultures, lifestyles, and viewpoints.

Studying in China pushed Tanner to get outside of his comfort zone, broaden his perspective, and re-examine his own convictions. He recalled the time when he was at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a Chinese classmate and he had the chance to design an itinerary for an American Congressional delegation. They took the delegation to visit with students at Nanjing University, dine with the farmers on an island in the Yangtze River, meet visually impaired children and seniors at a retirement center. 

Ge agreed with the other panelists that studying abroad is about exposing oneself to the unfamiliar, which seems even very important in a world that has become more divided and isolated today. And he reminded the audience that being able to study abroad is a privilege to be cherished.  

Vice Chancellor Lehman later asked the panelists to share tips with students and parents who are considering whether, in today’s challenging world, the benefits for Chinese people of studying in the US, or for Americans of studying in China might still be worth the risks. 

Ge and Sun agreed that parents should not worry too much about security, or current geopolitical issues. Rather than emphasizing differences between the two countries, parents and students should realize that humans are all the same and share the same desires. 

“Life is very short,” Sun said. “We ought to bring our children to an extent where they can see the different sides of the world. We should also maximize our shared interest.”

Travis stressed the significance of the bilateral relationship between China and U.S. As it has evolved, people from both countries need to figure out better ways to understand each other, and to collaborate with each other. “There's been no more important time for young people to study abroad in each other's countries than today. We need more than ever students moving back and forth. We need to increase people-to-people contact between our two countries,” he said. 

“If there was one thing that we could fundamentally do differently to make things better between our countries, it would be to escalate the number of student exchanges and really focus on this and encourage it,” Brindle echoed. 

Ge said that students should not be afraid to go abroad, but rather “believe in the goodness of people.” 

“I always tell people that part of our education always is … to really have appreciation of humans as humans. There are no differences between us. We may speak different languages. We may look different. But deep down we are the same and we want similar things.”

During the Question and Answer session, an audience member asked what preparations young people should make before studying abroad. Sun advised students to polish their language skills, read some literature about the country they are studying in, and build networks before they go. 

“Life is an adventure,” she said. “If you go there, enjoy yourself. Don't just eat Chinese food. Eat as many different foods as possible. … Embrace yourself into the local environment, because this is life. I'm sure wherever you go, trying to learn as much as possible from the local community will make your life colorful.”

In concluding the event, Chancellor Tong Shijun shared his own memories of his academic exchanges abroad, including the Fulbright year he spent at Columbia University in 2000. “I really benefited a lot from my stay abroad, particularly in the United States,” Tong said. Noting the current diplomatic tensions, Tong said he was still optimistic that the two peoples could navigate this period successfully and “find a better way to communicate with each other.”


East China Normal University